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From Udupi to Heidelberg

Prof. David Sebastian, who was honoured on July 7, has completed 40 distinguished years of organ playing at St. Mark's Cathedral. Here is an interview with the exacting, inspiring teacher.


David Sebastian: Doing what he loves best.

PROF. DAVID Sebastian has been a part of St Mark's Cathedral on M.G. Road for over 40 years. He has earned, in addition to hundreds of students and admirers, quite a few detractors, usually people stung by his sharp one-liners. But no one denies that he is one of the greatest organists in India, and an exacting and inspiring teacher. Trained at the Conservatory of Music, Basel, Switzerland, he is also a Licentiate of the Trinity College of Music and the Royal School of Music. Language is almost an equal passion, and he has worked as an English teacher for a number of years.

His musical journey began in Udupi — a town famous for its ancient Krishna temple, its Vaishnavite philosophy and its cooks — and took him to the most hallowed centres of Western music and religion in Europe.

On July 7, a congregation of 900 honoured him. This interview was conducted at the church two days before that ceremony.

Can you tell us a little about your early days? How did you come to learn music?

My relationship with music began way back in the 1930s when I was about three or four. We lived in Puttur, Kasargod, and Mulki, and were always close to the church, and the church was full of music. I used to listen to the Swiss and German missionaries who sang at night.

You were in no way familiar with Indian music?

I was not familiar with any form of Indian music then. It was only Western church music. Udupi is an important place. That was where, for the first time, I saw a real organ with two keyboards and a footboard. I was really fascinated by the organist. He was playing this organ with both hands and both feet and he would also sing the tenor part from memory while he played. One man doing all that! He was trained by the German missionaries.

(The Germans missionaries set up the Basel Mission, brought in a press, and started the Kannada newspaper, Mangalore Samachara. Rev. Kittel, who compiled the irreplaceable Kannada-English dictionary — the standard reference to this day — was a member of this passionately cultured brotherhood.)

From Udupi I went to Mangalore. I started learning the violin in Udupi, but I gave up because my fingertips were too soft to take the violin. I started training seriously in music in Mangalore. I had a good teacher, an Indian teacher as well as a Swiss missionary, Dr. Rossel (his photo and that of his wife hang in the professor's music room at the church).

Did you have any second thoughts about taking up music?

I always wanted to be a doctor, but that meant going to Vellore all the way from Mangalore. Perhaps that was why I went into music. I regret to this day that I couldn't get to be a doctor.

In Mangalore, I did my intermediate and BA. Then I went to Wilson College in Bombay. I went to St. Thomas Cathedral at Flora Fountain and had a few lessons from the organist, Mr Velu.

You learnt the organ?

After I finished my MA in English, I was on my way to Dublin University to do my B.Litt, but once I got to Switzerland, I saw all these lovely organs.

With the help of Mme Rossel, who trained me for the entrance test, I got into the Conservatory at Basel. My missionary friends sponsored me and the Conservatory too helped me with some concession. I was in Basel for two-and-a-half years. They were very happy with me.

When you switched from doing English to music, did you worry about your future as a Western classical musician in India?

If you did a B.Litt, you knew where you were going. With training in the organ, you didn't know. But I wanted to come back. Bishop Sergeant came to Basel and said there was a good organ in Bangalore.

He said the organist was ill and I should go there, and also mentioned that there was also a good school where I could teach. This was in 1955.

But the organist got better. I stayed on. I also taught English at Bishop Cotton's from 1955 to 1965. Rev. I.L. Thomas, the Principal, wanted someone properly trained to teach English, and arranged an interview for me with the British Council. The interviewer spoke only to two of us out of many. Asked us many questions for 45 minutes. I am a bit blunt and our interview went like this:

He asked me: "Do you like poetry?"

"No, I don't!"

"Then how will you teach English?"

"At the moment I don't know, but if training helps, perhaps I will."

"Have you got any warm clothing?"

Then I knew that I had been selected. I went to Oxford for my P.G. diploma in education, got an A Plus in methodology. I went in 1959 and was there till 1961. On my way back I went to Heidelberg and did my German. I came back and went to Cotton's.

In 1964, the principal sent me for a course to Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages in Hyderabad. This was my P.G. diploma in the teaching of English. Prof. Gokak recommended me to the Regional Institute of English here in Bangalore and they asked me to apply for the job when it was advertised.

In 1972, RIE sent me for a course in Applied Linguistics to Leeds. My external examiner came from London. I got the only distinction in General and English Phonetics.

Do you think there is a connection between your linguistic skills and your musical skills?

Even they asked me if it was because of music. I said language has dull sounds. Music and mathematics, they say, are related. I don't think music and language are connected.

I came back to the RIE. I was the first to introduce linguistics against a lot of opposition. I also taught English grammar and usage even though there were native speakers of English. Must be a case of "Fools rush in ...!" I was there till 1978.

RIE went to Kengeri, which meant I got no time to practise, and I joined Macmillan in 1984. I left in 1990 when I had to visit my people in the States.

I was in California for six months. Though I was asked to perform, my brother-in-law's health was very poor, so I didn't take up any performances. I returned to St. Mark's and the church asked me to start this school. The school has 160 students now.

How do you feel about not having enough opportunities in India? Do you ever wish you had remained abroad?

I did get plenty of offers — Afghanistan, Ireland, etc. There was this one offer for the post of organist at Headingley, Leeds. But I didn't want to give up my ELT (English Language Teaching) work here.

Everything is written down in your music and it's not at all improvisation-oriented like Indian classical music. What exactly does interpretation in Western music mean?

Unless you know the background, the period, the composers, the form and the idiom, it is very difficult to interpret music. Like in literature, you can recognise a Dickens or a Thackeray.

In India, you do some reading and listen but not as in Western countries. For them, Western classical music is a home product. It is the way you understand the music, the way you phrase it.

I have had some film musicians coming in. Hamsalekha came to learn for two years. Jingle-makers come to learn and they play me some ragas. There is something in the raga, the intervals themselves are attractive. Maybe later I can get to do something with ragas and the music I know best.

S. SUCHITRA LATA

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